Hope in detail: Examining the motives behind Half the Sky
Last week, Student Life printed its second “Spotlight on Social Action,” highlighting the rapid rise of Wash. U.’s chapter of the Half the Sky Movement. The student group’s goals are noble: among them, to “support educational and economic development programs…and increase the opportunities available to women and girls throughout the developing world.” The ubiquity and severity of gender-based oppression are undeniable. Awareness of these issues is regrettably low, and Half the Sky spreads the word well. However, by focusing on the developing world, Half the Sky reinforces the dominant narrative of the superiority of the West and the helplessness of the Global South. This allows us as privileged citizens of the Global North to ignore the problems of our communities while simplifying those of the “developing world.”
In our well-meaning Wash. U. community, this focus might not give us pause. Why not concentrate on the Global South? There, women are oppressed, corruption is rampant and we don’t do anything about it. At least, this is the narrative Nicholas Kristof, Sheryl WuDunn and their Half the Sky movement present.
It is a seductive story. Young girls and mothers, abandoned, abused, oppressed by their male-dominated cultures, need help. They need, whether “they” are in Sudan, Sierra Leone or Cambodia, our help. They need Nicholas Kristof and Half the Sky to give them voice and us to spread that voice and contribute to “international organizations.” While attractive and inspiring, this narrative is problematic in its goal of “awareness,” its promise of cheap easy and pure change, its broad yet superficial scope and its representation by Kristof and his celebrity guests. Are we meant to identify with victims or with Western saviors who sound and look like us?
These issues are synthesized by a quote from Half the Sky president Mackenzie Findlay, who finds “that a lot of Wash. U. students are extremely well-traveled and have been exposed to poverty and gender inequalities, so efforts like ours resonate deeply with them. For those that aren’t, I know that seeing the reality on film can be very eye-opening.” This naively assumes the films illuminate “the reality.” Every film has a director and producers. Each serves an agenda, and the “reality” presented in Half the Sky is only as real as Kristof’s interpretation of a place, culture and problem. We see and learn from the oppressed but only through the filter of Kristof and celebrities.
Why is this problematic? Gender-based oppression is not a simple issue. Its manifestations look similar, but the structures that allow it to operate are shaped by cultures, the histories of specific places. Diagnosing social diseases and prescribing solutions without intimate knowledge of structural factors is counterproductive. Kristof presents snapshots, long enough to inspire compassion, but brief enough to ignore the messy details of intersecting identities and systematic oppression. These snapshots, in turn, encourage donations to “international organizations,” a solution as brief and painless as an attention span.
More disturbing is the connection between travel and being “exposed to poverty and gender inequalities.” Findlay seems to say, intentionally or not, that our best opportunity to be exposed to poverty and gender inequalities is through travel. Implicit in this argument is the assumption that poverty and gender inequalities in our communities are so much less insidious than in the Global South that they don’t require our attention. Certainly, it is easier to view gender-based oppression with the separating, comforting force of distance. After all, what guilt could we share, as students in St. Louis, in the rape of a girl in Sierra Leone? The answer is complicated enough to reduce to “none.”
Much easier to discern, if less comfortable to acknowledge, is our role in gender-based violence and poverty in our school, city and nation. Why is infant mortality rate in the United States so dependent upon zip codes? Why is sexual assault endemic on our campus? Our membership in these communities allows us to examine the structures of violence and oppression we participate in and learn how to work against them.
The most difficult subject to study may be the faults of our community and ourselves. Yet through painfully objective introspection, we find room to grow and the capacity to make a difference. Not a clean difference, the kind you can feel proud of before moving on; but a change, however incremental, that inspires commitment, a sense of community and forms the lasting relationships, across and within identities, that are the true enemies of our systems of oppression.